Sunday, May 26, 2013

Legislature gets a 'B'

Weekly Opinion Editorial
Legislature gets a “B”
by Steve Fair

The Oklahoma legislature adjourned sine die(Latin for ‘without day’) on Friday, one week earlier than required.  According to the Constitution, the legislature must adjourn by the last Friday in May.  The Senate finished around noon Friday and, the House at 7:30pm.  It is estimated the legislature saved Oklahoma taxpayers about $140,000 by adjourning early. 

In the final week of session, the legislature passed SB 249 which directed $45 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to the Office of Emergency Management for immediate tornado relief in the Sooner state.  These funds will match a portion of the federal funds that have been allocated to local governments. 

Here are some of the major achievements of the Oklahoma 2013 legislature?

First and foremost the legislature passed meaningful worker compensation reform.  SB #1062 changes Oklahoma’s current court-based system to an administrative structure, a move that supporters say will reduce workers’ comp costs for businesses and improve the amount of money an injured workers gets in a settlement. 

Second, lawmakers didn’t borrow money.  The legislature was under unbelievable pressure to issue bonds to fix the State Capitol.  Anyone who has visited the Capitol know the building needs to be repaired, but we shouldn’t borrow money to do it.  We should pay as we go and the legislature did that by taking some of the income tax money coming in the next two years to fix the Capitol.

Third, they cut our state income tax rate from 5.25% to 5% effective January 1, 2015,   While that is not the biggest tax cut in the world, it is a step in the right direction.  The proposal to eliminate the state income tax all together needs to include substantial cuts to Oklahoma government and thus far the legislature hasn’t shown the will to do that.

Fourth, lawmakers passed legislation to reduce the unfunded liability of Oklahoma's pension system for firefighters. The bill requires new firefighters to be at least 50 years old and have worked for 22 years, instead of the current 20 years, to be eligible for benefits. New firefighters also would not become vested until they had worked for 11 years, instead of the current 10 years. The bill also increases the amount that firefighters, municipalities and the state pay into the system each year.

Now some of the ‘jury’s still out’ achievements of the 2013 session:

Lawmakers passed a measure that converts the nonprofit CompSource Oklahoma into an independent mutual company that will be known as CompSource Mutual Insurance Company. The agency writes about one-third of Oklahoma's workers' compensation policies and is a safety net for a lot of Oklahoma based businesses for workers comp coverage.  Critics contend privatizing CompSource was a political move by the legislature and will not help Oklahoma business and in the long run will drive rates up.  We shall see.

The legislature adopted a $7.1 billion dollar budget to fund state government that was $268 million more than the year before.  That is certainly not streamlining Oklahoma government or making it more efficient.  Oklahoma Republicans better remember the lesson from the national GOP who lost the majority in Congress after spending more money than the Democrats. 

The biggest failure of the 2013 session was the legislature not overturning Governor Fallin’s veto of Senate Bill 907 which would have created a Joint Legislature Committee on Accountability.  The Committee would have been given the authority to ask the State Auditor to do performance audits on state agencies.  If Republicans are serious about finding waste in government, we must have a mechanism in place to find the waste.

All in all, I give the Oklahoma legislative session a B, based on the importance of the workers comp reform bill.  But they could have done better.

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